Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

Idaho Book Review Idaho [2017] – ★★1/2

Emily Ruskovich’s debut is a strange book. Idaho alludes to some accident which happened sometime in the past in the woods of Idaho. That accident involved a family of four: Wade, Jenny and their two daughters, May and June. Jumping timelines, Ruskovich paints an unsettling picture of one family broken apart. Years after the incident, Wade suffers from memory loss, and it is up to his new wife Ann “to retrace the memory steps”. If this sounds vague and confusing, it is because it is supposed to. Idaho is an almost experimental novel, in which the author uses the evocative language to shed light on the nature of memory, loss, grief and guilt. Though her attempt is admirable, the book is also very problematic: if the beginning is promising, the book soon morphs into a frustrating read, and the ending borders on pointlessness.  Continue reading “Review: Idaho by Emily Ruskovich”

Siena, Tuscany

Siena Italy

Awhile ago I wrote a post on Florence, Italy, one of the most culturally and historically rich cities in the world, and I thought I would follow it up now with a post on Siena, a medieval town in Tuscany that is situated some seventy kilometres away by car or one and a half hour ride by train from Florence. One of the reasons I love Siena is that it retained its medieval landscape; it is rich in history and its citizens still practice traditions dating to the twelve century. One legend says that Siena was founded by Remus’s sons Senius and Aschius, who hid there from their uncle Romulus (Remus and Romulus are infamous twin brothers that are characters in the legend on the founding of Rome). Even Siena’s symbol is a she-wolf, that is often pictured caring for Romulus and Remus. One other piece of information is that Siena was founded by Emperor Augustus in the 1st century BC as Sena Julia. In this post, I will briefly describe Siena’s main sights, and comment on the culture of the place. Apart from the header photo, all photos in this post are mine (again, excuse my phone camera).  Continue reading “Siena, Tuscany”

Review: French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

FFrench Exit Book Coverrench Exit [2018] – ★★★

This tragicomedy of manners comes from the author of a Man Booker Prize nominee The Sisters Brothers [2011]. In French Exit, Patrick DeWitt centres on a mother, Frances, a fussy and bossy woman of sixty-five, and her good-for-nothing thirty-two year-old son, Malcolm, who see their fortune fade away after an ill-publicised death of the family provider Franklin Price, once an eminent lawyer in New York City. Once rich and admired, the family of two now face financial ruin and decide to go to Paris, perhaps, for a change of scenery. Frances’s only friend Joan provides an apartment to rent in Paris for them, and the duo of unlikely central characters embark on their French exploit enthusiastically, meeting eccentric characters along the way. This slightly surreal tragicomedy is an amusing enough read, but it is also often somewhat dull, with emotional punch coming too late in this curious book.  Continue reading “Review: French Exit by Patrick DeWitt”

Review: Serena by Ron Rash

Serena Book Cover Serena [2008] – ★★★★1/2

I am progressing splendidly with my “Appalachian States” Reading Challenge, and this review is another addition to cover the state of North Carolina. Will at Coot’s Reviews suggested that I read Serena by Ron Rash for my challenge, and both H.P from Hillbilly Highways and Emma at Book Around the Corner also recommended that I read Rash’s work, so thank you! Especially since Serena pleasantly surprised me. This novel tells the story of a newly-wed couple the Pembertons who arrive to a logging community high up in North Carolina Mountains to take over a timber business there. Every worker at the camp is awed by Mrs Serena Pemberton, a woman so strong-willed and determined she can match any man’s will power or shrewdness. Masterfully-executed and beautifully-written, Serena evokes vividly both the beauty of North Carolina’s landscape and horrors involved in the business of cutting trees to make profit. Ron Rash even packs in the novel “slow-burn” suspense since Mr Pemberton’s past actions give rise to unforeseen consequences, and, as the couple arrive to North Carolina, with them also descends upon the village something disturbing and sinister.

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The Literary Adaptation Book Tag

Since my two recent book reviews were of books that resulted in major films – Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and The Night of the Hunter – I have decided to have a go at this book tag about literary adaptations, slightly changing the original book tag seen at Milibroteca (a Spanish language book blog).

The English Patient Film PosterI. What is your favourite literary adaptation? 

Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient [1996] adapted from the novel of the same name [1992] by Michael Ondaatje.

The English Patient is far from being the most faithful adaptation, but Minghella (The Talented Mr Ripley [1999]) conveyed the spirit and atmosphere of the novel perfectly, and the film boasts great performances from Ralph Fiennes, Kristin Scott Thomas and Juliette Binoche. The score by Gabriel Yared (Betty Blue [1986]) is one of the most beautiful ever produced, too.

Virgin Suicides Film PosterII. What do you consider to be the best book-to-film adaptation?

Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides [1999] adapted from the novel of the same name [1993] by Jeffrey Eugenides. 

In my opinion, some of the best ever literary adaptations include Gone with the Wind [1939], Rosemary’s Baby [1968] and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [2001], but there is still something very special about Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, so I choose that film. It is a beautiful, haunting adaptation which remains largely faithful to the source material. Coppola did an amazing job conveying the suburban claustrophobia and hidden despair and tension of the girls. Continue reading “The Literary Adaptation Book Tag”

Review: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb

The Night of the Hunter Book CoverThe Night of the Hunter [1953] – ★★★★★

The Night of the Hunter is best known as a film of 1955 by Charles Laughton, but it was first a great book by Davis Grubb, who based his story on a true case of serial killer Harry Powers, a deranged psychopath who preyed on and killed lonely widows in the late 1920s. In the book by Davis Grubb, Willa Harper is a recently widowed mother of two whose husband, Ben Harper, has recently been convicted and executed for killing two men in armed robbery. After the execution, Willa and her two children, John and Pearl, are the centre of sympathy in their community until their “salvation” arrives in the form of Harry Powell or “Preacher”. Preacher knows that Ben Harper disclosed to his children before his execution the location of ten thousand dollars he gained through robbery, and Preacher will use any means – kindness or more disturbing pressure to discover the location of the money. It is safe to say now that The Night of the Hunter was unjustly overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart. American writer Julia Keller called Davis Grubb’s book a “lost masterpiece”, and there is truth in that. The Night of the Hunter is a chilling, unforgettable tale of crime and evil set in the background of a Depression-hit community on a riverbank in West Virginia. The novel is suspenseful and thrilling, with great characterisations and an eerie atmosphere.  Continue reading “Review: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb”

Review: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes Book Cover Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café [1987] – ★★★★

I may be sitting here at the Rose Terrace Nursing Home, but in my mind I’m over at the Whistle Stop Café having a plate of fried green tomatoes“, Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode, June 1986 (preface quote to Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café).

This book is about two women – Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly woman in a nursing home, – meeting in 1985, and Ms Threadgoode starts to tell Evelyn about her youth spent in Whistle Stop, Alabama during the Depression era. Evelyn goes back in her mind to that time when Ms Threadgoode’s wild, free-spirited sister-in-law Idgie and her beautiful, soft-spoken friend Ruth ran a café in Whistle Stop, discovering the hardship they went through and the happiness they found. Mrs Threadgoode also hints at a murder mystery which got everyone talking in the 1930s in Whistle Stop. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a “feel-good” book at the centre of which is a powerful story of two women whose friendship and love enabled them to overcome obstacles in their way. Originally presented, paying special attention to the connecting power of food and cooking, the book also touches on such themes as racism, aging, marital violence, and finding hope in difficult times.

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Paintings of Remedios Varo

Remedios Varo (1908 – 1963) was a Spanish/Mexican surrealist artist best known for her enigmatic, mystical and “alchemical” paintings, that “[blended] surrealist techniques and images, Freudian and Jungian psychology, science, magic, and the occult” [Vosburg N. (2005) Strange Yet “Familiar”: Cats and Birds in Remedios Varo’s Artistic Universe. In: Figuring Animals, 2016]. Below, I present and briefly discuss her three paintings.Remedios Varo Paintings

I. Hacia la Torre (Towards the Tower) (1960)

Towards the Tower depicts a number of identical girls dressed in identical clothing that are whisked away by a man and a woman on bicycles. They are moving away from houses that resemble a beehive. Given Varo’s catholic upbringing, the wide interpretation of the painting is that the woman leading the girls on the bicycle is a nun and the girls are pupils in a convent. The girls share similar features as the artist wanted to underline the rigid conformity of the place. The beehive-shaped houses also underline the idea that the girls work towards one common goal (like bees) and their individuality is supressed or ignored. The “magic” numbers are also present here – we see twelve houses (for example, there are also twelve months), and seven girls (there are also seven days in a week). This is the first painting in the series of three paintings that depict the same women who first flee the houses (the convent) to get to the Tower, and then escape. The third painting (The Escape) shows a girl on a journey with her love.  Continue reading “Paintings of Remedios Varo”

Review: Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Hunger Cover Hunger [1890/1996] – ★★★★★

Knut Hamsun is a Nobel Prize Winner for Literature whose existentialist literary work Hunger predates Franz Kafka’s The Trial [1925] and Albert Camus’ The Stranger [1942]. Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad, Hunger explores the daily life of one lonely and desperate man on the brink of starvation in a large city. Our unnamed narrator is a freelance writer who has one “ambition” in his life: not to die from hunger. He is hard-working and not demanding, with food and shelter being his main wishes. Hamsun explores mental and physical traumas of the character in a masterful work that inspired some of the greatest philosophical fiction authors of the twentieth century, emphasising in his work that the fight to survive in a big city may take a shape of complete absurdity.

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Review: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet

The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau Cover The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau [2014] – ★★★★★

Graeme Macrae Burnet is a Scottish author best known for his Man Booker Prize nominated novel His Bloody Project [2015]. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is his debut novel written in a style of a French mystery novel and film noir. Dark and intriguing, the novel tells the story of thirty-six-year old Manfred Baumann, a reclusive, lonely and socially awkward bank worker who spends his evenings in the local Restaurant de la Cloche, Saint-Louis, France. When one attractive waitress of the restaurant – Adèle Bedeau disappears after a night-out, Detective Georges Gorski’s suspicions soon fall on Manfred Baumann and one unsolved past criminal case regains its spotlight. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is written in that nostalgic style of old French mystery novels, echoing the works of Georges Simenon (Burnet’s favourite book is Simenon’s The Little Man from Archangel [1957]) or existential literature, such as Ernesto Sabato’s El Tunel [1948]. The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau is an impressive, understated literary mystery with many subtle elements, convincing psychological character study, and one atmospheric setting. Continue reading “Review: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet”

Opinion: Hergé’s “Prisoners of the Sun (Le Temple du Soleil)” [1949]

The Adventures of Tintin:Le Temple du Soleil Cover Prisoners of the Sun ]1949]

I will begin by saying that I love The Adventures of Tintin comic albums. They are exciting and entertaining stories. I lived in Brussels for some time, and that is the place to be if you want to be converted into a fan of Franco-Belgian comics (for example, there is a Tintin shop in Brussels and murals depicting Tintin adventures). Even though I realise that the comics are products of their time, and are supposed to be fun, light-hearted stories not to be taken seriously, I still find Herge’s Prisoners of the Sun a problematic one, especially in what it ultimately suggests and implies, as well as in the main message it sends out in the end (for other articles hinting at the comics’ problematic nature, including allegations of racism, see here and here). Continue reading “Opinion: Hergé’s “Prisoners of the Sun (Le Temple du Soleil)” [1949]”

Review: The Editor by Steven Rowley

The Editor Book Cover The Editor [2019] – ★★1/2

In this story by Steven Rowley, author of the debut novel Lily and the Octopus [2016], a struggling writer James Smale lands a book deal, and his editor ends up being no other than Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, yes, the former First Lady of the United States. For James, it is like a dream-come-true situation, and, as he deepens his friendship with his famous editor, he realised he has to confront the painful issues surrounding the reason why he began writing his novel The Quarantine in the first place. Ms Kennedy Onassis wants James to open up about his mother and surprising family secrets emerge. The Editor, which is set in 1990s New York City, is quirky and humorous, but it is also a self-indulgent and pretentious book which suffers from a dull, predictable and melodramatic plot. Continue reading “Review: The Editor by Steven Rowley”

The “Appalachian States” Reading Challenge

AppalachiaI have set myself a challenge to read books set in the “Appalachian States” in the United States (since I cannot possibly take up the challenge of reading 50 books set in all 50 different states). For those who do not know, Appalachia is a “cultural region in the Eastern US that stretches roughly from New York to Northern Georgia”. I reside in the UK and, so, it will be interesting for me to discover and learn about life in some American states through literature, as well as bring visibility to that part of the world. I am especially interested in small and remote American towns. Continue reading “The “Appalachian States” Reading Challenge”

Review: When Rain Clouds Gather by Bessie Head

When Rain Clouds Gather Book Review When Rain Clouds Gather [1969] – ★★★★★

You may see no rivers on the ground but we keep the rivers inside us. That is why all good things and all good people are called rain. Sometimes we see the rain clouds gather even though not a cloud appears in the sky. It is all in our heart” [Bessie Head, 1969: 191]. 

This is a tale of Makhaya, a refugee from South Africa, who desires to build his life anew in a small village of Golema Mmidi, Botswana. There, he meets eccentric Englishman Gilbert Balfour, who would like to revolutionise farming methods to help people of the village. Both men are running away from the past and are in search of wives. However, before both start to live free lives, trying to help others, they have to face and fight political corruption, unfavourable climatic conditions and village prejudice. When Rain Clouds Gather tells an important story of finding hope in the most hostile and dangerous conditions, and can really be considered a modern classic.
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Review: The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier

Los Pasos Perdidos CoverThe Lost Steps [1953/1989] – ★★★★1/2 

“…we let ourselves succumb to the world of wonder, eager for still greater portents. There arose beside the hearth, conjured up by Montsalvatje, the medicine men who healed the wounds with the magic incantation of Bogotá, the Amazon Queen, Cicanocohora, the amphibious men who slept at night in the bottoms of the lakes, and those whose sole nourishment was the scent of flowers” [Carpentier/de Onis, 1954/89: 144].

Los Pasos Perdidos or The Lost Steps was translated from the Spanish by Harriet de Onis and represents what is believed to be one of the most important Latin American novels to come out in the twentieth century. In this story, our unnamed narrator (believed to be in New York) is sent on a mission to a jungle (believed to be in Venezuela) to discover and collect some ancient musical instruments for a museum. By accepting this request, the narrator has no idea that he is about to embark on one extraordinary journey of self-realisation and self-discovery, which will force him to rethink his previous inculcated beliefs. The Lost Steps is a complex literary work which sometimes slides into being rather metaphysical in nature, but without losing its conviction or power. Carpentier weaves his story in a beautiful, even though enigmatic, language, and the result is a book which puzzles, impresses and astonishes. Continue reading “Review: The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier”